Exam season is underway and with this comes the influx of students stressed and studying ardently to earn a good grade. This is a commendable action, but intense studying, coupled with the pressure to do well and the high expectations imposed upon students, makes it easy to become discouraged or overwhelmed. School is competitive and right now, outperforming peers can feel like the only thing that matters. This stress can be detrimental, and in order to prevent any disastrous outcomes, it is vital that students keep the truly important things in mind. Grades matter, but they are not everything. 

Grades do not define intellect; they merely reflect one’s knowledge of a specific subject or even their preparedness for the exam. Take the SAT, for example: A test formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test was meant to reflect the intellect of individual students. However, according to the Public Broadcasting Service, the exam’s name no longer carries the same meaning, nor is it supposed to measure intellect. According to the same PBS article, Wayne Camara, former director of the Office of research at the College Board, stated that the SAT measures “developed reasoning,” a skill set acquired both in and out of the classroom. In an interview with PBS, Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing described the SAT by stating, “There’s a lot of how shrewdly you can play the game. There's a lot that can [be] taught in coaching courses that has nothing to do with any of the skills you need to succeed in college or in life.” Despite this, the exam is still used as one of the major determining factors for college admissions. Those who aren’t able to take test prep courses might do worse than other students, but this is not indicative of their abilities as a student. This practice of teaching test-specific material with the goal of passing a standardized test is known as “teaching to the test,” and though it is beneficial short-term, there is no actual merit. 

Instead of actually learning, some  just commit facts to short-term memory. A Sept 9, 2013 article in the Atlantic describes a high school teacher’s experience with his own class when he realized the widespread problem. He stated that, “Trigonometry was just a collection of non-rhyming lyrics to the lamest sing-along ever.” This is true for all of education; students are encouraged to memorize facts with no real basis of understanding in order to recall them for the upcoming exam. Instead of testing our conceptual understanding, many exams test our ability to regurgitate facts and reiterate the instructor’s lesson. The teacher also went on to state that “when you memorize a fact, it's arbitrary, interchangeable, … but when you learn a fact, it's bound to others by a web of logic.” This logic isn’t applied by many educators, as memorizing facts still seems to be the preferred method of learning. 

Conversely, those who seek to conceptually understand information can be put at a disadvantage. Some instructors expect students to define and explain things simply as they have stated them in class, and any deviation results in a loss of credit. This pressure to essentially be perfect is harmful for students. According to a July 27, 2015 New York Times article, a survey of college counseling centers revealed that over half of their clients suffer from severe psychological problems such as depression and anxiety. Additionally, according to the American Psychological Association, in 2013 over 46 percent of students that visited a counseling center reported feelings of anxiety and nearly 40 percent claimed depression. The pressure to do well, please one’s family or even ensure a job after graduation can be too much for some people. This is not to say that exams or stress are the cause of psychological disorders, but they can exacerbate existing problems. The same New York Times article describes a student whose life began to spiral when she received a poor grade. Upon receiving a 60 percent on a calculus exam, Kathryn DeWitt stated, “I had a picture of my future, and as that future deteriorated, … I stopped imagining another future.”  

College is expected to be stressful, and it is important to strive for the best, but students should understand that it is okay to fall short. Grades are not the most important thing in the world, and it is important to remember that the educational system is not designed to cater to everyone and their individual learning methods. According to a saying commonly attributed to Albert Einstein, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Grades do not reflect true intellect and the sooner this is accepted, the happier students can be.